One popular angle for Barack Obama's detractors is to accuse him of being an empty celebrity. Recall this 2008 John McCain attack ad:
Juxtaposing Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton suggested not only unearned, ephemeral attention but the possibility that Obama was a bad-decision time bomb waiting to detonate and generate unflattering tabloid-esque headlines. In "2016: Obama's America" -- the surprise top-grossing documentary of the year -- Dinesh D'Souza returns to and excavates some of the tediously familiar worst-case scenarios (Obama is a secret Marxist, kowtows to the Muslim world, and so on), an annotation of some of the popular pejorative attempts to fix the president's image. These marginal efforts speak to a pre-selected audience. But what about broader cinematic responses?
Obama is most effective when given a momentary excuse to be forceful. His iconic sound bites come from speeches rather than interpersonal interactions or ads. Juxtaposing his promises against George W. Bush's far less impressive but no less important late September 2008 announcement of a bailout necessitated by "the irresponsible actions of some" threatening "the financial security of all," Dominik implies that two superficial alternatives produced the same ill-regulated results. W. was primarily associated with malaprops, not ringing declarations of intent; tactfully, or perhaps to avoid overly easy jokes, Dominik leaves these out, equating the two men's actions. (Screening the film at Cannes, Pitt admittedly rejected such readings, saying Obama's presence was meant "as a real expression of hope.")
So far, movies including the sitting president (aside from the fervid sub-industry of anti-Obama conservative agit-prop) have -- like "Killing Them Softly" -- largely only responded to his 2008 campaign. In 2010's "I'm Still Here," Joaquin Phoenix (in two-year character as the worst possible version of himself) flies uninvited to the inauguration, wanting association by attendance with the historic event. Painstakingly set in the already myth-ready election summer of 2008, 2011's "This Must Be The Place," now in theaters, has rock star protagonist Cheyenne (Sean Penn) listening to Obama speak about the need for better schools and teachers before impatiently switching over to the NFL. (Sarah Palin is also glimpsed, albeit on mute.)
It's too early to say whether the bruising, endless campaign of 2012 will be as fertile a recent period signifier as its 2008 variant. On the offensive during his first run, Obama was often criticized throughout his re-election efforts for seeming tired, passionless, or otherwise insufficiently committed to demonstrating his passion and engagement. Will future films have Obama rhetorically differentiating symmetrical foreign policies with Mitt Romney or at his optimistic, rhetorical best?